If I were to survey law students about their biggest fears, the Socratic Method would certainly rank among the top three.
Often referred to as “cold calling,” the Socratic Method ordinarily involves a law professor randomly, and without prior notice, calling on a student to answer a series of seemingly endless questions.
The questions run the gamut from the facts of the assigned case to far-fetched hypotheticals that the student had no occasion to read or consider before class.
The Socratic Method even achieved Hollywood fame in classics such as the Paper Chase, where Professor Kingsfield reigns terror on first-year Harvard law students, and more recently, Legally Blonde, where Elle Woods is subjected to a scathing Socratic questioning on civil procedure on her first day of class.
These Hollywood portrayals of the Socratic Method only cement what law students already fear: public humiliation as they fail to answer questions in front of their professors and classmates, who sit in judgment of their poor legal analysis skills and surely-impending drop-out from law school.
This belief has become lore.
In this post, I debunk the myths about the Socratic Method and explain why you should stop worrying and learn to love it.
Myth #1. Students who participate frequently and perform well under Socratic questioning get the highest grades in class.
In the Paper Chase, the protagonist—a 1L Harvard student named Hart—decides to join what he calls the “upper echelon” of elite law students. These elite law students frequently raise their hands and participate in the class discussion.
Hart believes, as do many other law students, that the more frequently you participate in class and the better you perform under Socratic questioning, the higher your chances of earning a coveted A on law school final exams.
This thinking is appealing in principle. The students who extensively participate in the class discussion appear intimidating. They look like they know the material cold. They provide novel, creative arguments that only quasi-divine creatures can think of on the spot. They seem to have that je na sais quoi that the rest of the audience lacks. They were made to be attorneys, while you ended up in law school because you realized a little too late in the game that you can’t make a living as an Art History major.
This myth does not live up to reality, at least not in my world.
The ability to think under pressure, though an important skill, does not necessarily translate to a stellar exam performance.
In my career as a law professor, the top grade in every single one of my classes went to a student who participated in class only occasionally and did not do a particularly memorable job in Socratic questioning.
But they excelled on the final exam, using the strategies that I will cover on this blog.
Myth #2. Socratic questioning is of no use for the final exam.
Many students think they are invisible to their professor in class. But I can pick out, relatively accurately, which students are engaged in extracurricular activities just by scanning the room.
Zoning out is particularly common during the Socratic questioning of a classmate.
Relieved that it wasn’t their name I pronounced, many students retreat to the soft glow of their computer screens, Tweeting, Facebooking, Gmailing, and instant-messaging. This makes sense, they assure themselves, because the professor’s affirmative statements–not her questions or the student’s answers– are the most important part of the class.
Don’t fall into this trap.
The professor is asking these questions because she cares about them. The questions are indicative of the types of questions you might get on the final.
Many law professors spend quite a bit of time formulating precise questions and hypotheticals to ask in class. You should be listening attentively and taking careful notes of the questions and the answers, along with the reactions to the answer by the professor.
Every year, in one of my classes (I won’t name which), I pose the same multiple-choice question on the final exam that I posed as a hypothetical in class. Roughly a third of the students get the question wrong.
Think of the Socratic Method as a direct, rare, and easy access to the professor’s thinking and questioning style.
Think of the hypotheticals as previews of the coming attractions on the final exam.
Myth #3. My professor and my classmates will think I’m not smart if I fail to perform well.
When one of your classmates is called on by the professor, do you carefully dissect every word that comes out of his or her mouth? Or do you retreat to the safety of your laptop, counting your lucky stars that it’s not you on the hot seat?
Most law students fall squarely within the second category. Many of them are too preoccupied with their own reality to notice your slip-ups as you answer questions. And they are too grateful that you took one for the team to judge you for any mistakes.
Even your law professors will be preoccupied with their own realities to pay careful attention to every word you speak. During Socratic questioning, numerous ideas are floating through my mind: (1) Did the student understand my question correctly?; (2) What will be my next question?; (3) Are the other students following the discussion?; (4) I just noticed the student in the back row smiled—he’s probably on Facebook; (5) Will I have time to cover everything I planned to cover in this class hour? And so on.
You professor also knows how difficult it is for you to answer questions on-the-spot. After all, they were a law student once. I remember completely freezing during a Socratic examination on future interests in my first-year Property class (which, to this date, remains my least favorite subject).
Everyone fumbles, usually multiple times, during Socratic questioning. No student has ever answered all of my questions correctly.
If—and this is an important if—your professors can tell that you have adequately prepared for the class, they will be patient with you and cut you some slack.
Many law professors also have some law practice experience and are familiar with the refrain that the best answer to a judge’s question occurs to you on the way home from the hearing.
Myth # 4. I must answer the professor’s question right away.
This is one of the biggest mistakes that law students make during Socratic questioning.
They don’t take the time to pause and reflect. Instead they say the first remotely related thing that pops into their head, hoping that if they throw everything and the kitchen sink at the professor, something will inevitably stick.
This method is a recipe for failure. There is nothing wrong with taking a deep breath, pausing for several moments, and taking a look at the casebook, your notes, or both. This accomplishes two things. First, it gives you time to digest the question, make sure you understand it correctly, and formulate an articulate and careful answer. Second, it implies that the question the professor asked was an important one that requires you to consider what you just heard.
Your answers will be much better if you take the time to pause and reflect.
Myth # 5. If I don’t perform well in class, I’m going to fail as an attorney.
The Paper Chase is to blame for this one. After Hart performs miserably during a particularly scathing questioning in class, Professor Kingsfield responds: “Mr. Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.”
Once again, the myth does not live up to reality.
It’s normal—in fact necessary—to make mistakes before you become an expert in anything. Success, according to Winston Churchill, is “the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Likewise, Niels Bohr defines an expert as “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”
You’re in law school to gain expertise in law, and that means that you’re going to screw up. I know this is hard to swallow for the perfectionists who tend to comprise the vast majority of a law student body, but the sooner you embrace that reality, the better off you will be.
Stephen King, one of my favorite authors, put all of his rejection letters on a wall until the nail on the wall would no longer support them.
He replaced the nail with a spike and he kept on writing.
Mistakes are particularly common and understandable when it comes to public speaking, which is a terrifying ordeal for most of the population. Even students who speak in class with some regularity get nervous when they answer a question. They might have good poker faces, but deep down, public speaking in front of one’s classmates and professors, particularly without prior notice, is intimidating for everyone. As Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, “Most people at a funeral would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”
Myth #6. The Socratic Method is a device of torture and intimidation, similar to waterboarding.
Despite appearances to the contrary, most law professors do not use the Socratic Method as an intimidation device. To be sure, the Socratic Method has been criticized and its use can be troublesome in the wrong hands, but when applied properly, it can serve useful teaching purposes.
First, the Socratic Method ensures that students are prepared for class. Simply put, when students know they might be called on without prior notice, they are more likely to prepare for class.
Second, the Socratic Method can teach problem solving. Instead of the professor providing answers to the students through a monotonic lecture, the Socratic Method facilitates a dialogue between the professor and the student where the two work together to find the right answer.
In law, the process for getting to an answer is more important than the answer itself, which often is unclear and changes frequently.
Third, and with some exceptions, many attorneys are expected to speak in public and think on their feet. Speaking in class, in front of your classmates, will get you more comfortable with public speaking.
Fourth, in all-volunteer classes, the class discussion tends to be dominated by a vocal few (whom law students adoringly call “gunners”). But everyone in class has something valuable to contribute to the conversation. Cold-calling can be a means of ensuring that all students are included in the discussion.
Yes, there are other methods for achieving these goals.
But the general point should be clear: If your professors choose to use the Socratic method, they are probably using it for what they believe to be valid pedagogical purposes that have nothing to do with intimidation.